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Teaching The Children of Willesden Lane
Resources to help you teach the book in middle schools and high schools

Historical Context

Race and Antisemitism

Hitler’s antisemitic policies encountered little opposition in Austria and Germany. As many historians have noted, everything Hitler did followed logically from the racial doctrines that most Europeans vaguely believed. Anti-Judaism had long been part of life in Europe.

Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, coined the word “antisemitism” in 1879 to describe the hatred of Jews as members of a separate and dangerous “race.” The term combined older stereotypes about Jews and Judaism with the racist thinking of the 19th century. In earlier times, Jews were hated because they refused to accept the religion of the majority. Jews who converted, or so the reasoning went, were no longer outsiders. They belonged. But by the late 1800s, racists saw every Jew regardless of his or her religious beliefs as an outsider, because conversion does not alter one’s race.

Today most scholars regard “race” as a meaningless scientific concept; human beings, regardless of their so-called race, are more genetically alike than different. Genetic differences within “races” are greater than those between the “races.”

However, in the 1800s, the few scientists who tried to show the flaws in racist thinking were ignored. For example, after studying seven million Jewish and Aryan children, the German Anthropological Society concluded in 1886 that the two groups were more alike than different. Historian George Mosse writes:

“This survey should have ended controversies about the existence of pure Aryans and Jews. However, it seems to have had surprisingly little impact. The idea of race had been infused with myths, stereotypes, and subjectivities long ago, and a scientific survey could change little. The idea of pure, superior races and the concept of a racial enemy solved too many pressing problems to be easily discarded.”1


1. George Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism. Fertig, 1978, p.92

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An antisemitic illustration from a Nazi film strip

An antisemitic illustration from a Nazi film strip. The caption, translated from German, states: “As a member of an alien race, the Jew had no civil rights in the middle ages. He had to reside in a restricted section of town, in a ghetto....”

 

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